Law professor, Auschwitz survivor draws on past to fight for human rights

Thomas Buergenthal, an international law professor at GW, is a leader in the campaign against human rights violations.

The driving force behind Buergenthal’s passion is the knowledge that he is a lucky man – one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust.

“Any time there is a person being tortured or killed, that’s the worst violence there is,” Buergenthal says. “When you multiply it by 10s and 100s, that’s the worst part.”

He has served as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and is a member of the United National Human Rights Committee.

mbbBy age 11, Buergenthal already had lived the experiences of a lifetime.

He was born in 1934 in Czechoslovakia, where his family had fled to escape Nazi Germany.

Five years later, the family had made it to the Ghetto of Kielce in Poland. Instead of being sent to an extermination camp, Buergenthal and his parents were taken to a work camp.

“There was open season on children,” Buergenthal remembers. “Children couldn’t work and were eating unnecessarily.”

Buergenthal spoke German, and had Aryan looks. He convinced a camp commander that he could work, and was allowed to stay. Soon after, the family was shipped to Auschwitz.

In Auschwitz, Buergenthal was separated from his mother, but still managed to stay alive. He was lucky, he said, and skillful.

“I knew what to do,” Buergenthal says. “When to hide, when not to hide.”

Buergenthal’s father was separated from the family. The young son feared his turn would be next.

Buergenthal was chosen to die and a date was set. But when the scheduled day arrived, the death list was unusually short. Nazis decided that igniting the crematorium would be a waste.

Buergenthal was sent to a barrack of old and sick prisoners. He was waiting to be executed when a Polish doctor passed nearby. The doctor took away the card that marked Buergenthal for death, and replaced it with an unmarked card.

Buergenthal fell asleep. When he awoke, he was alone – everyone else had been taken to die.

But Buergenthal’s plight was not over. Nazis decided to move the prisoners, forcing them to march 15 long, cold days. Buergenthal was one of a few people who survived the trek, though he had two toes amputated from frostbite.

And then in one moment, it was over.

“You’re free. You can go now,” the Russians said to Buergenthal as they liberated the camp.

Buergenthal says he has forgiven the Germans for the atrocities he and the Jewish people endured.

“I very early on decided that Germans had no monopoly on evil,” Buergenthal says. “I forgive, but do not forget. Forgetting is the most dangerous thing.”

Buergenthal had to force himself to forgive the Germans, he says, especially after his father was killed three days before the liberation. His mother, with whom he was reunited after three years of separation, taught him that continued hatred does not solve anything.

“If we continue to hate, we will create a vicious cycle that will never end,” he says.

Buergenthal instead focuses his attention on remembering the dead through his work on the executive committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He says he hopes people will learn from the Holocaust when they visit the museum. That is why he supported Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s controversial visit last month.

“If Arafat wants to visit the museum, I think that’s a good idea,” Buergenthal says. “Maybe he will better understand why the Jews are so affected by their experiences.

“When people see what happened, they can think of the role they might play in preventing these things from happening,” Buergenthal says. “These things can happen when the world isn’t paying attention.”

Buergenthal pays attention.

“My interest is in preventing the past from repeating itself,” Buergenthal says. “When we were in the camps, there were no international laws to prevent this. Now there are.”

Buergenthal helps enforce those laws.

“I think we should take stronger measures to bring criminals to justice in Bosnia,” Buergenthal says. “We should use force to do that.”

He says he thinks the issues in Bosnia are just as serious as those in Iraq. By permitting Bosnian criminals to go unpunished, Buergenthal insists, the United States is sending a dangerous signal to the international community.

Buergenthal is confident that human rights issues can be improved.

“I think we can probably have a world where fewer serious human rights violations exist,” he says. “The trouble is most people go through life with their eyes closed.”

Buergenthal says the United States went through World War II blind to atrocity.

“They could have done so much more than they did, but it was hard to believe what was happening,” Buergenthal says.

“If there had been the same reactions to Hitler in the earlier stages as there were to apartheid, things would have been different.”

Americans are obliged to lead the fight for human rights, he says.

“If Americans become disinterested, then the bad people in this world are going to get the upper hand.”

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